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Patrick Roy returns to Montreal at helm of surprising Avalanche

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Patrick Roy will lead his Colorado Avalanche against the team that made him famous. (USATSI)
Patrick Roy will lead his Colorado Avalanche against the team that made him famous. (USATSI)

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The face behind the Colorado Avalanche bench Tuesday night will be a familiar one to those in the Bell Centre in Montreal. It is a face that is likely to bring on an array of emotions and a wave of nostalgia for many in the building. That steely gaze, the aura of intensity and passion will all be unmistakably recognizable. Though Patrick Roy is a part of the Colorado Avalanche, he will always belong to Montreal.

His No. 33 hangs from the Bell Centre rafters and he led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1986 and 1993, the last time the storied franchise took the NHL's top prize. Despite an unceremonious end to his playing career in the city that made him famous, Roy is still held in high esteem.

Aside from his number retirement in 2008, Roy has not been connected with the Habs since he demanded and received a trade during the 1995-96 season right on the bench after he was left in for nine goals against the Detroit Red Wings.

He, of course, went on to lead the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup that year and had a career worthy of another number retirement in Denver as well, cementing his status as one of the game's all-time greats.

The old wounds have since healed, according to Roy, but his departure remains a sour moment in Canadiens history.

If that memory wasn't painful enough for Habs, Roy is in the process of engineering one of the great turnarounds in recent memory in the NHL, taking the Avalanche from the league's basement under Joe Sacco last year to second place in the tough Central Division this year.

Roy comes into Montreal as a symbol of what was, but perhaps also as what may be someday. It was just two years ago that the Canadiens head coach position was vacant and a fan poll overwhelmingly chose Roy to fill it. Teams don't make decisions on fan polls, though, and Michel Therrien was the choice and behind the Habs' bench he remains.

At that point, Roy was a risky choice for any team. His coaching experience came entirely in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Quebec Remparts, a team he co-owns. His reputation also may have given many a general manager pause about approaching Roy all together. That was until Avalanche president of hockey operations and former captain Joe Sakic came calling last offseason.

The success the former Canadiens goaltender has enjoyed in Colorado may be a little salt in the wound as Montreal is clawing its way into one of the lower seeds for the Eastern Conference playoffs and has had quite the up-and-down season. The Avs currently own a 12-point advantage in the league table over where Montreal sits right now.

How long Roy remains with the Avalanche is anyone's guess. He has a role within the hockey operations department beyond coaching, which gives him a little more control over personnel decisions and he also seems to have a very tight relationship with his team. That may be a major contributing factor to the remarkable turnaround.

As Roy addressed reporters in Montreal Monday, St. Patrick's Day of all days, he spoke about the importance of building a partnership and keeping things positive with the Avalanche players. Sacco left the organization and received less-than-warm reviews from the players about his style on the way out. Roy brings in an entirely different approach.

Warm and fuzzy doesn't seem like the right phrase to describe Roy, but when he speaks about basing a relationship around trust and respect with his players, it seems genuine. It's not all lollipops and rainbows, though. As Roy showed his very first night behind the bench in the NHL, he's still a powder keg.

The Avalanche head coach slammed the glass between the Avalanche and Anaheim Ducks benches in a rather animated disagreement with Ducks bench boss Bruce Boudreau. It earned Roy a $10,000 fine from the league and Pepsi Center had a partition to replace. Though it was viewed initially as an example of the first-year head coach's volatility, it was a moment that proved to his players he was going to go to battle for them.

“Fortunate for me, it didn't take too long to get an opportunity to show I was with them,” Roy said Monday in Montreal. “I don't remember what happened in that game, but I just need to look at my paycheck and I see it.”

Roy may still be prone to outbursts from time-to-time, like any NHL coach, but he has been lauded by his players for the never-too-high, never-too-low nature of how he approaches the game.

"The biggest thing he's brought is calm," said Avs center Matt Duchene told the Denver Post. "There's never any panic."

"We're playing the way our team is built. We're continuously trying to get better. But everybody has a smile on their face. It's so much better."

It's an interesting note from Duchene to mention that the team is playing the way it is built. It's something that even the most veteran of coaches can fail in. If a coach tries to force his style on a team that doesn't have the personnel to play it, the results will often be undesirable.

Letting the players play is all part of that partnership Roy speaks about. Trusting in his personnel to do the job they were brought in for as opposed to micro-managing and coaching the creativity out of a player is far too common. The early results are proof, the Avalanche are heading in the right direction and they're best players have been better than they've ever been.

This is virtually the same Colorado team from last season that finished 29th and earned the No. 1 pick in the draft, the ultimate sign of a bad season. Roy may have been the missing ingredient to make it all come together.

Duchene is enjoying a career year and made the Canadian Olympic team, which seemed like a longshot as recently as last year. No. 1 pick Nathan MacKinnon is on his way to an easy Calder Trophy win as the league's top rookie. The defense as a whole has been better because the forwards are pushing the pace and finishing a lot of their chances. Then there's the rather large piece of this puzzle. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov has been lights out in net this season, which has helped cover the Avs in games they weren't the best.

It is too early to call Roy an overwhelming success. As good as the Avs have been, they remain a questionable possession team and have leaned on Varlamov a lot this year, but considering where they were and how they played over the last few years compared to where they are now, it's hard to ignore.

The players put a lot of their success on Roy, who throws it right back to them. Even as an ex-player with a healthy ego, Roy has carved a path all his own in Colorado.

Though it may have been nice for a Quebecois to lead the Habs, Montreal probably would not have been the right place for Roy to start anyway. It's not the easiest place for a first-year head coach to walk into, no matter how confident he may be.

The expectations were so low in Colorado that anything would have been an improvement from last year, but Roy has been silencing doubters all season long. At the time of his hire, it seemed too convenient, getting a job from his former teammate, in a city starving to relive its glory days. The Avs hockey ops staff is like a who's who of the late 1990s, early 2000s Avalanche teams. Heck, they even signed Alex Tanguay to come back and play.

But it's working. Roy always seemed destined to coach in the NHL. His choice to go to work in the QMJHL and start basically from the bottom showed he would one day be worthy of a shot. Even though it wasn't in Montreal as the Habs fans had overwhelmingly hoped, Patrick Roy being back in the league has been a good thing.

Roy very easily could have become a sideshow. He could have been the face of the franchise to make people forget the Avalanche were struggling and make them think of the days of yore. But he came in, did the work, chose the correct approach and helped sell tickets the way a team is supposed to -- by winning.

Now he goes back to where he learned his winning ways. Roy said he has only been back to Bell Centre once since his 2008 jersey retirement. He is sure to receive a warm welcome from the Canadiens faithful, one that may linger a little longer to remind him that one day, maybe soon, they'll want him back “home.”

 
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